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Improving Vermont's digital economy

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2014-09-23

By Alexei Rubenstein, WCAX - http://www.wcax.com/story/26609277/improving-vermonts-digital-economy

MONTPELIER, Vt. - In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, most of the visible damage was to Vermont's infrastructure: roads washed out, bridges swept away and homes destroyed.

A lot of the unseen recovery effort the last year and a half has focused on improving the so-called digital infrastructure-- improving communication and fostering the kind of civic engagement and cooperation seen in so many communities after the floods.

"We are all about the community coming together," said Sharon Combes-Farr of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. "We call it virtual infrastructure."

Upward of 300 Vermonters, from educators to local leaders and business owners, came to the Digital Economy Summit to learn and share stories. Stories about how a free WI-FI network in Waterbury and two dozen other communities is helping residents connect. Stories about teaching digital literacy to adults and helping small businesses navigate e-commerce.

Much of the work is spearheaded by the Vermont Council on Rural Development with the help of a $2 million federal grant.

"Our grant came to fore almost two years after Tropical Storm Irene, which is perfect timing. 'Cause you have two years to do your bridges, your roads and really get businesses back so that they can open the door," Combes-Farr said.

Organizers say the virtual work of the digital project has led to many examples of real world effects and interactions among people, like a community garden in Montpelier.

"She had a lawn, a front lawn basically, she wanted to grow food on. So she reached out via Front Porch Forum to connect with other neighbors-- that's how I initially found out about it-- and it just spiraled from there," said Rob Fish of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Front Porch Forum, which received funding from the project, now operates in every Vermont town with about 67 percent of households participating.

Other communities, like the Mad River Valley, have learned important lessons that tools like Facebook and other social media can be managed for more than just tourism.

"We realized that these people wanted to talk. It wasn't just a, 'I go to Aspen every year skiing once a year.' It was more that the people who live here and the people who are near-- neighbors and even visit-- think of it as their kind of place," said Steve Butcher of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce.

In an age when many people don't know their neighbors, organizers say building this kind of community resiliency is valuable not just for improving everyday life, but for being prepared when the next disaster strikes.